The Talmud tells the story of a thief who prayed to G-d for success. Is this thief a believer or not? If yes, what is he doing thieving? If not, then why pray to G-d? The answer is that he does believe, only his belief is peripheral and he has not internalized his faith to the extent that is has had an effect on his entire way of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Belief must be intellectualized, internalized, and integrated into one’s actions, and that is the purpose of Jewish meditation.
Sadly, most Jews today have never heard of Jewish meditation, and typically when asking a group of Jews how many of them meditate on a regular basis, the answer is only a few.
Many people associate meditation with eastern religion but few associate it with a regular synagogue service. The truth is, however, that meditation is an essential ingredient of our religion and the base of all observance. There are 613 Mitzvot in the Torah. Six of them are obligatory every single second of the day, and upon deeper reflection we see they are the bedrock of observance. They are:
1. To believe in G-d.
2. To unify His name.
3. To love G-d.
4. To fear Him.
5. To love a fellow Jew.
6. Not to turn astray after one’s heart and eyes.
The first step is to believe in and to know G-d, as the verse states, “Know this day and take unto your heart that the L-rd is G-d; in the heavens above and upon the earth below there is nothing else,” (Deuteronomy 4:39). We proclaim His unity by reciting “Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One” twice a day, morning and evening. Such profound statements of belief cannot simply be recited by rote; rather they must be accompanied by deep contemplation. To do them justice a person must enter a course of study where one will learn such concepts as the nature of G-d, the chain order of creation, and the purpose of this creation, and then deeply meditate upon what has been learned. The point of the meditation is to arouse the emotions of love and fear of G-d, which allows one to grasp the profundity of such statements as those cited above.
The Zohar calls love and fear the two wings with which the bird soars above. A person is motivated to keep all the positive commandments out of a sense of love and commitment, and one is deterred from transgressing the negative commandments out of a sense of fear. There are, of course, many levels of love and fear (also expressed as awe) as explained at length in chassidic teachings. The scriptural text uses the Hebrew word Yirah, usually translated as the “fear” of G-d. However, fear denotes fear of punishment, which is the most basic level of fear. In truth, the more appropriate translation is “awe” for that denotes deep awareness of the Omnipotent Being. Initially, a person may be deterred from sin by a fear of punishment, however ultimately the deterrent should be a deep sense of awe and desire not to contradict the Divine will.
The Maggid of Mezritch once asked, “How is it possible for G-d to command an emotion?” The Torah states that we are to “Love the L-rd your G-d,” and to “Love your fellow Jew as yourself.” Love is a very powerful emotion and very personal. How can G-d demand that all His creatures love Him and each other? Is it possible to switch on an emotion impulsively upon demand? The Maggid answers that the command is not to instantly become emotional, rather the command is to meditate.
Deep meditation and intimate knowledge of G-d brings one to love Him, and contemplation on the G-dly essence of every individual leads one to love every Jew.
By extension, a person’s love and fear of G-d is reflected in their inter-human relationships and in their steadfast commitment to not stray after the heart and eyes, as the Baal Shem Tov stated, “the portal to G-d is the love of a fellow Jew.” When applying this idea to the daily prayers, we see that if prayer is to be effective during the course of the day, it must involve meditation. Although classically prayer is a request to G-d, on a deeper level, prayer constitutes two soul movements— the moment when one meditates on deeply attaching the soul to G-d, while simultaneously, communicating with one’s Nefesh HaBehamit in an effort to refine one’s character.
When the Sages constructed the order of prayer, they did so with this in mind, and each stage of the prayers is a rung in the ladder of meditation. We begin with Modeh Ani, which is a simple expression of faith. We then express our deep thanks to G-d for our faculties and wellbeing in the morning blessings.
We proceed to the section describing the daily sacrifices, which is called in Hebrew Korbanot. The word “Korban” actually means to “draw near.” Spiritually this means that we all need to sacrifice our animalistic nature on the altar of the heart.
Through fiery and passionate love of G-d, we can burn excess and indulgence and draw near to true service. Next, we read the Pesukei D’Zimrah (verses of praise), where we become truly overwhelmed by G-d’s benevolence and omnipotence. We then speak of the service of the angels and how they stand in awe in their daily lauding of G-d. Following this we proclaim G-d’s absolute unity in the Shema, realizing that G-d is all and all is G-d. Only then do we stand for the Amidah and request from G-d.
This daily service cannot be rushed or done without preparation, and it must be realized that the order and words are precise and meaningful. It also requires a solid comprehension of its meaning, both literally and conceptually. But beyond that, it requires personalization. We should reflect on what they mean to us individually, how it will help us change for the better, and how it has an impact on daily life. Meditation gives us the tools not only to understand the words of the prayers, but to carry these words and their meaning into our daily lives when we engage in the day-to-day activities that can sometimes seem far from obvious G-dliness. This is why chassidim of ChaBaD placed such emphasis on the study of chassidic teachings before prayer. It gives the mind and heart focus and language with which to meditate and integrate.
Most important is the discipline of training oneself that a rich spiritual experience cannot be gained by rote, rather by exertion of the mind and body focusing and internalizing.
Meditation requires practice and study. For the beginner, a good place to start would be to decide that before one prays one should sit quietly for a few moments and “know before whom you stand.” One should study a particular discourse in Hassidism that explains in detail the dynamics of G-d’s unity, or the love and fear of Him, and one should reflect regularly on that discourse. Most important is that this meditation be of a detailed nature and not just cursory reflection. The more detailed the meditation, the stronger its effect.